The Best Books for President's Day or Engaging Students in U.S. History
Written by guest blogger Cindy Koopmans
I’m really excited about this list of books that feature our United States Presidents. Did you know? From George Washington to Joe Biden —that’s 46 U.S. Presidents! It was on April 30, 1789 that George Washington stood on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York City and took the Oath of Office. It has been 231 years since that historic event. Amazing!
As I have created this dazzling list, I’ve found my imagination sparked in a hundred different ways. I’ve got some great ideas as to how I would use these books with my students to start discussions about politics, history, and critical moments when they rose to the occasion or, in some cases, the failures that caused their downfall. I’ve no doubt that once you’ve had a chance to examine this list you will be inspired too.
It’s sad, but true, that sometimes I’ve had to cajole my kiddos into reading history. I’ve had to be sure the books I’m suggesting are jazzy and captivating from page one. So I’ve remembered those kid-established guidelines and created a list of the books that I would consider to be the creme de la creme of books. No stuffy, musty dry as dust reading here.
Our country and its citizens are going through some incredibly tough times right now, but it isn’t anything we haven’t faced before—death, disease, unrest, war, and mind boggling challenges—and our kids really need to understand that. American history is a declaration that right will out as we will pull together, learn, and emerge an even greater nation as a result of what we are collectively going through as a nation.
A couple of notes: First, in regard to encyclopedias, I’ve only included those that are totally up to date and include every single U.S. President from Washington to Trump.
Second, I want you to know that many of these books are available electronically. I’ve added a capital “E” in parentheses after the title for those books that are.
I know most of us aren’t quite sure what our classes will look like next year. We are making some pretty incredible history right now, people!
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A Baker’s Dozen of the Most Dazzling Books About the U.S. Presidents
1. Obama: An Intimate Portrait (E) Pete Sousa with an introduction by Barack Obama
Pete Souza is an American photojournalist. He was a photographer with The Chicago Tribune when he worked the Washington, D.C. beat.
Sousa is the former Chief Official White House Photographer for the U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama and the former director of the White House Photography Office.
Sousa has credentials for sure, but he also has a discerning eye and has captured the best moments of Obama’s presidency.
So the result of all this is a photojournal with warmth and humor and pathos. In this beautiful book, Sousa shows us President Obama the statesman, but also the comedian, the husband and father, and a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
This book will surprise and delight 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students, but will also make them think. I would use this book in the classroom to start a conversation about why someone would choose to run for president. As a great follow up writing prompt, because we’ve got to get them writing, I’d pose this question: Would you want to run for president of The United States when you grow up? Why or why not?
2. Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt! (E) Jean Fritz (author) Mike Wimmer (illustrator)
Teddy Roosevelt, born an asthmatic, grew up to be an extraordinary man who never backed down from life in any way. Jean Fritz introduces us to Teddy Roosevelt, our 26th president, with story after story of his daring, idiosyncratic, and at times unbelievable life. This is an ALA Notable Book and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year.
I love this quote from Jean Fritz:
“The question I am most often asked, is how do I find my ideas? The answer is: I don't. Ideas find me. A character in history will suddenly step right out of the past and demand a book. Generally people don't bother to speak to me unless there's a good chance that I'll take them on."
Truthfully, a book about Teddy Roosevelt is not a hard sell. Just tell the kiddos the San Juan Hill story and they’ll want more. This would be a good paired text to accompany Action Presidents #3. I’ll tell you about that series next.
3. Action Presidents (E) Fred Van Lente, Author and Ryan Dunlavey, Illustrator
Full disclosure, I was not originally a fan of the graphic novel genre, but after seeing students devouring graphic novels like potato chips. I’ve been converted. My inauguration was Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series. If you’re a skeptic like I was once, check it out!
A student converted me. Truth. Ryder T. was so incredibly into these books that I thought were, well, garbage. He broke it down for me. He explained how the illustrator used the quirky illustrations to make the history come alive. Yes. Converted by a student’s enthusiasm. Epic.
When I saw the Van Lente series I was intrigued and when I started reading them I just had to laugh out loud. I’ve bought all four in the series for my classroom for next year. Here they are in the order that they were published, numbers one through four: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. All four are available electronically.
Yes, these books are hilarious, but they are also historically accurate. Critiques are raving and I’m betting your kids will too. Van Lente’s first book was a finalist for the 2019 Excellence in Graphic Literature Award in Middle Grade Nonfiction.
If you don’t know DK books, then allow me to introduce you here. Then to make a good thing even better, the publisher has collaborated with the world renowned Smithsonian Institution. This book is a definite winner.
This encyclopedia is jam-packed with photographs, call outs, and “we’re going to break it down for you” mini-articles. The The Presidents Visual Encyclopedia is going to flood your geeky little teacher brain with unadulterated joy.
It may not make it through the year in one piece because the kids are rough on our stuff and the book is really that good.
5. Our Country's Presidents: A Complete Encyclopedia of the U.S. Presidency National Geographic
This encyclopedia is written at a higher level than the previous recommendation, but still right for upper elementary. There are elements in this edition by National Geographic that are not in the DK version so I’d recommend getting both, especially if you are a history teacher.
I like the way the publishers have taken the first few pages to explain the nonfiction features of the book. As a teacher, that is something I would put under the document camera. We know that students don’t automatically “get” nonfiction text features and how handy they can be in their research.
There is also a chart that shows presidential election results from 1789 to the present day. Geek gold.
6. Worst of Friends: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the True Story of an American Feud (E) Suzanne Tripp Jurmain (author) and Larry Day (illustrator)
The conflict between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson is the stuff of which historical legends are made. Suzanne Tripp tells the story with humor and grace and Larry Day’s clever illustrations add a huge dose of whimsy.
Here’s the crux of the matter: Adams was a Federalist who promoted a centralized, national government while Jefferson advocated for a decentralized government with more control given to individual states. Jefferson and Adams started the Democratic-Republican Party (today’s Republican Party) , but ultimately, Jefferson would become it’s leader.
“The election of 1796 pitted Thomas Jefferson vs John Adams and came down to a very narrow victory for the latter. Because of the original laws for a presidential election, the runner up became Vice President. For another term, Jefferson was a member of a government that he publicly opposed.”
There you go. Let’s just remember that crazy politics didn’t originate in the 21st century. We just didn’t have NPR, CNN and FOX to tell us all about it.
7. An Illustrated Timeline of U.S. Presidents (E) Mary L. Engler (author) and Len Epstein (illustrator)
If you are looking for an introductory book to get your 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade students excited about projects on the presidents, this is the book you want. Throw it under the doc camera and get those sign-up sheets on the clipboard to send around the classroom (or however you organize your classroom library) because they will be ready to go when you’ve finished presenting this book.
An Illustrated Timeline of U.S. Presidents is also the perfect book to use when introducing timelines to your class. Its brightly-illustrated pages are fun and engaging. We all know that timelines are over simplifications and people and events really defy this kind of graphic representation. That’s an interesting conversation too!
8. Presidents of the United States of America: A History of America's Leaders (E) Franklin Taylor
This book intrigued me so much when I read the description that I purchased it right away for my Kindle.
The reason this book is different and special is that the author jam-packs so much information succinctly into this one little book.
First, every president gets his own chapter. Second, it includes some information about who each president considered his enemies, a breakdown of the wars that were fought during his presidency, and lots of other factoids that will make even the nerdiest of your kiddos gleeful.
The 10 year old me is clapping her hands and jumping up and down right now.
9. Nice Work, Franklin! (E) Suzanne Tripp Jurmain (author) and Larry Day (illustrator)
This book begins with the sentence, “Do Presidents have challenges?” As adults, we know the answer to this question is a loud and resounding, “YES!” But kids don’t see things the way we do. They may think just because presidents are powerful they can do whatever they want to do. We know this isn’t the way the United States works!
The author does a great job of explaining how Franklin Roosevelt loved and revered his cousin Theodore Roosevelt, but also faced very different challenges than his cousin Teddy. Some of the most significant challenges Franklin Rossevelt faced were physical challenges as a result of contracting polio.
If this book resonates with you and your students, I’d highly suggest a follow up read of a book about Eleanor Roosevelt. She is one of my female heroines. I was unable to locate a book that honored and explained the impact that Eleanor Roosevelt had on this country as a legendary First Lady, reformer, humanitarian and significant member of the United Nations. Someone should write. Maybe I will.
10. Kid Presidents: True Tales of Childhood from America's Presidents (E) David Stabler (author) Doogie Horner (illustrator)
Author David Stabler tells the best stories of our venerated U.S. Presidents as children. As a child, Barry (Barach) Obama had a pet name Tata, loved Spiderman and was bullied? The book will resonate with kids because it is about famous adults that had the same triumphs and tragedies that they are having now, except these kids ended up becoming a U.S. President!
A real benefit is the friendly, easy storytelling style of David Stabler’s writing. Included in this book are stories about Presidents Washington, Lincoln, Grant, Reagan, Obama, Clinton, Taft, Roosevelt, Ford, and more.
11. The Great Little Madison (E) Jean Fritz
James Madison was our 4th U.S. President. At 5 feet 4 inches and with a soft voice, President Madison is not remembered as a powerhouse president. Quiet scholarship and eloquence marked this man.
I challenge you to click on the link here and read the first chapter of Jean Fritz’s book on James Madison. You will want more. In my classroom I make a practice of reading the first few pages of books that I think might be a bit intimidating or off putting for kids. (This is one great way to motivate reluctant readers.) Those are some of the best reads, even if the cover isn’t captivating or the blurb on the back isn’t written by a Madison Avenue type.
This is one of those memorable books that will on stick with you long after you’ve finished reading it.
12. The Camping Trip that Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Our National Parks(E) Barb Rosenstock (author) and Mordicai Gerstein (illustrator)
In case you didn’t notice, this is the second Teddy Roosevelt book on this list. I find him an endlessly fascinating, bigger than life character that did so much for the United States during his tenure. I think he warrants two books on the list!
Besides that fact, I’ve found kids don’t know John Muir’s life story and I think that is a travesty considering the fact that he is the father of our National Park system. What? You didn’t know that either? Then you need to watch this video.
Mordicai Gerstein’s beautiful illustrations are stunning compliments to a fabulous story. This is off topic, but you really do need to check out The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, another nonfiction book that will peak student’s interest in a tragic historical event that has irrevocably shaped and goes on to shape American politics and culture.
13. Rutherford B., Who Was He?: Poems About Our Presidents - Marilyn Singer (author) and John Hendrix (illustrator)
Well, Rutherford B. Hayes was the 19th President of the United States and so he’s buried somewhere in the middle of the line-up. You know what happens to the middle child, so same. But Hayes was a staunch abolitionist and defended refugee slaves in court during the antebellum years. I want to know about that!
But Poetry? Yes. Poetry, plus short biographies, but back stories. A different take on the U.S. Presidents, but an engaging and memorable way to approach the topic.
Never Stress Over Sub Plans Again!
Make copies, find a fiction book, and you'll be ready for any emergency that comes your way!